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Is not knowing an artefact was Nazi loot an excuse to retain it?

The Musée des beaux-arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland has been in the news recently, for their refusal to return a Constable painting looted by the Nazis to the heirs of the rightful owner.

The excuse given by the museum is that they did not know that they purchased the item in good faith. Further to this, they also argue that as a neutral power in the Second World War, their history is unencumbered by the holocaust.

Neither of these reasons holds much credibility for me though. If the legitimacy of a purchase is merely down to good faith, then surely this leads us down a route where nobody asks awkward questions when making a purchase. Even if the due diligence process was thorough, this should not be an acceptable excuse. although perhaps there is an argument that some compromise could be made – either between the museum and the rightful owners, or potentially the governments of countries that expect their institutions to be able to do the right thing. There is no precedent for the second argument – that Switzerland had no involvement in the situation that led to the looting. Britain was actively fighting against the Nazis during the Second World War, arguably giving it a stronger claim to this than Switzerland, but various institutions have already made restitutions in similar cases and the right to do this is enshrined in law by the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act [1].

Despite all the above though, what this article skips over, is that the Holocaust is not a special case in this regard. Museums should make far wider examinations of provenance and their justifications for ownership. The Benin Bronzes [2] and the Parthenon Sculptures [3] in the British Museum are just some of the many other cases currently outside of the legal frameworks that allow for the return of Nazi loot, meaning that the institutions that hold them feel little need to argue a case [4], as they know that there is no legal way for the items to be deaccessioned from their collections at present.

John Constable’s Dedham From Langham, 1813

John Constable’s Dedham From Langham, 1813

Guardian [5]

Why a Swiss gallery should return its looted Nazi art out of simple decency
Jonathan Jones
Wednesday 27 January 2016

Memory has many colours. A work of art that survives the centuries is an embodiment of history, marked invisibly by all the hands that have held it. Who owned it? Where did it hang? These are not just arcane questions for scholars but the network of human experience that haunts works of art in museums and makes them richly alive.

The hunt for works of art looted by the Nazis matters. Researchers who discover the true owners of a painting stolen in wartime Europe and later acquired innocently or knowingly by a museum or gallery are piecing together shadowy stories of oppression, injustice, murder and destruction. Why did the Nazis loot art from Jewish owners? It was not only greedbut an ideological belief that Jews contributed nothing to European civilisation and did not deserve to share in it.

Nazi loot carries a legacy of hate. And that is why a Swiss art museum is wrong to refuse to return a painting by John Constable to the despoiled owner’s rightful heirs. When Anna Jaffe died in France in 1942, she left the art collection of her late husband John Jaffe to her nieces and nephews. Mr Jaffe, whose brother Otto was a former lord mayor of Belfast and whose family were noted linen exporters, had settled in France – hence his ownership of a painting by one of England’s great artists. The stories of looted works of art reveal these hidden details of modern history: here was a work owned by an eminent British businessman, who moved to France and whose art collection ended up in the hands of the pro-Nazi Vichy government.

Constable’s painting Dedham from Langham was auctioned at a forced sale in Nice in 1943. Now the family of John and Anna Jaffe want it back – but the Musée des Beaux-Arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds insists it will keep the work, offering to tell the story of its provenance in a special gallery text on the wall instead.

Is there a backlash against restitution in the museum world? In recent years some spectacular restitutions of looted art have led to masterpieces moving around the world. Most notably, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, once a highlight of Vienna’s art collections, is now in the Neuegalerie in New York. But some museums are becoming more resistant.

Last year a panel in Austria voted to reject a demand for the return of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze to the heirs of Erich Lederer, who inherited it from his father August. In fact the case was complicated. Lederer survived the war and later sold the Frieze – Klimt’s masterpiece – at what the heirs claim was an enforced cut price. The Austrian inquiry rejected this claim.

The Swiss museum says it bought Constable’s painting in good faith and therefore should not have to return it. Switzerland was neutral in the second world war – it does not carry the direct burden of Holocaust guilt that Austria does. But why does that make it all right to cling to war loot? British galleries are more open about this. The National Gallery announced unprompted a few years ago that a masterpiece by Cranach in its collection was once in the hands of Adolf Hitler himself. No rightful owner has been traced, so it is still in the National Gallery – for now.

In the end, there is no case against the justice of returning works of art to their rightful owners when these can be found. No crime in history equals the Holocaust. Looting art was just one more way that Nazism denied the humanity and individuality of Jewish people. There is no “on the other hand”. It is our collective duty to uncover the lost histories of suffering hidden in museums masterpieces and where justice can be done, it should be done gladly, as a basic act of respect and decency.

New York Times [6]

Jewish Heirs Sue Swiss Museum to Recover Constable Painting
By Doreen Carvajal
January 25, 2016

PARIS — Jewish descendants of the owner of a John Constable landscape have sued to reclaim the painting from a regional Swiss museum where it hangs now with a note acknowledging that it was illegally seized during World War II.

Since 2006, the heirs of Anna Jaffé and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds in northwest Switzerland have clashed over the rights to the landscape, “Dedham From Langham,” an 1813 scene of the English countryside that has been valued at about $1 million.

The relatives have tried various approaches to wrest it back, including an unsuccessful effort to organize a referendum for local residents to vote on whether to return the painting.

The museum and city officials in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a town of about 38,000 people, have long argued that they accepted the painting in good faith as a donation from a local collector and that Swiss law does not require restitution or an exchange of money in such cases.

Alain Monteagle, a retired French history teacher who has helped his family recover 10 other works from museums in France and Texas and private collectors, said Monday that he and his relatives decided to sue now because the museum’s latest offer — to acknowledge that he and his heirs were the rightful owners, but on the condition that the painting remain in the museum — was unacceptable.

The painting belonged to Mr. Monteagle’s great-aunt, Jaffé, a childless British expatriate whose belongings were seized a year after she died and auctioned off in July 1943 in Nice, France.

The lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 15 in a Swiss regional court, describes how British diplomats learned about repeated attempts to resell the painting in 1945 and tried to locate the work, which was noted on an American list of objects looted during the war. It was sold in 1946 to a Swiss businessman, René Junod, and his wife, Madeleine Alice, who died in 1986 and bequeathed it to the museum.

A lawyer for the city declined to comment on Monday, saying that the city had not yet been formally notified by the local tribunal about the lawsuit.

Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said that the dispute was significant because “this case could not be more clear-cut.”

“The painting was stolen from the Jaffé family and it should be returned,” Mr. Lauder said. “The Swiss reaction shows a troubling lack of shame since there is no gap in the provenance.”

He said that he intends to bring up the case in Zurich in February when he delivers a speech on Nazi-looted art at an event organized by the Swiss Jewish Community Federation.
Correction: January 25, 2016
An earlier version of this post misstated the date of “Dedham From Langham.” It is from 1813, not 1873. (Constable died in 1837.)